On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States with little prior experience in foreign policy or governance. Other than a slogan that claimed America First, Trump had few substantive ideas on foreign policy. From the White House website, the Trump administration’s top foreign policy agenda appeared to be “defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups.” For those in the Asia policy community, his emphasis on ISIS and defeating terrorism generated concerns that Trump might neglect the Asia-Pacific region, a region that offers the best prospects for economic growth as well as serious challenges related to Sino-American strategic competition.
So far, 100 days into office, Trump appears to have offered an incoherent Asia policy marked by several continuities and discontinuities from the previous administration.
“Rebalance to Asia” Is Dead, but Strategic Emphasis on Asia Continues
When the acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Susan Thornton stated on March 17 that “the pivot to Asia” was a term used to describe the policy of the Obama administration and that the Trump administration would have its own formulations, media outlets quickly claimed that the “pivot to Asia” was dead. Indeed, it seems highly unlikely that the Trump administration will continue to use the term “pivot to Asia,” but its early moves in the Asia-Pacific suggest that Washington’s strategic emphasis on Asia will, itself, continue.
Since his inauguration, President Trump has sent Secretary of Defense Mattis, Secretary of State Tillerson, and Vice President Pence to East Asia. In a highly unusual move as a newly elected president, he has also hosted Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-lago within his first 100 days into office. He also maintains close contact with Abe, as evidenced by five phone conversations as of April 24. Assessment of the cabinet level visits and summits aside, the frequency of the Trump administration’s high level contacts with leaders of the Asia-Pacific indicate that America’s emphasis on Asia continues.
Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration’s emphasis on the Asia-Pacific is merely a natural response to the growing threat from North Korea or a larger strategic initiative similar to that of President Obama. Regardless of the Trump administration’s strategic intentions, however, the renewed and early focus on the Asia-Pacific is reassuring for those many Asia-Pacific countries that had been concerned about Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the possibility that his administration would prioritize the Middle East over the Asia-Pacific.
As for alliances, the Trump administration appears more eager to assure its allies than to demand that they take on a greater share of the economic burden of housing U.S. forces. On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump repeatedly referred to South Korea and Japan as allies that were free-riding on U.S. security commitments. At one point, candidate Trump even implied that he would allow South Korea and Japan to acquire nuclear weapons if they did not contribute more to U.S. troops in the region. But once he came into office, cabinet-level appointees and Vice President Pence made reassurance trips to Asia to comfort the same anxious allies.
During their visits to South Korea, Mattis, Tillerson, and Pence all reaffirmed the U.S. alliance with South Korea. All three leaders reaffirmed America’s commitment to defend South Korea under the growing threat from the North and offered a renewed guarantee to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Pence also reassured the Koreans that the U.S. commitment will remain unchanged regardless of South Korea’s presidential election results in May. Based on press releases and statements from all three visits, there seems little evidence that the Trump administration has demanded that South Korea contribute more to support U.S. troops stationed there.
As for Japan, Trump himself has personally assured Japanese Prime Minister Abe and reaffirmed America’s commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance. At a personal level, Abe appears to have forged a strong bond with Trump through his visit to Trump tower in New York as well as his summit with Trump at Mar-a-lago in Florida. In their joint statement, both leaders also reiterated America’s defense commitment to the Senkaku Islands in accordance with the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Pence, Mattis, and Tillerson all similarly assured Japan and reiterated America’s commitment to defend the Senkaku islands during their visit. On the issue of burden sharing, Mattis, in a striking departure from Trump’s campaign rhetoric, indicated that the U.S.-Japan alliance has been a model for cost-sharing.
Moving from Strategic Patience to Strategic Impatience?
Even during his campaign as a presidential candidate, Trump made clear that he would delegate responsibility to the Chinese to solve the North Korean problem. Since his inauguration, he called for a policy review on North Korea and Mattis indicated that North Korea would be a top priority in the Trump administration’s agenda.
One of the first moves by the Trump administration was to abandon the term “strategic patience.” Strategic patience refers to the supposed calculation of the Obama administration that it could afford to wait for North Korea to return to the denuclearization process as the U.S. and other powers applied more positive and negative incentives. This alleged Obama-era concept, however, appears to have become extinct as Tillerson and Pence both made clear that the era of strategic patience has ended and all options are on the table.
Indeed, the Trump administration can no longer afford any form of patience in the wake of North Korea’s recent two nuclear tests and multiple missile tests that show evidence of rapidly improving nuclear and missile technology. However, complicating the situation is the apparent fact that neither dialogue nor military action seems to be a palatable choice. On the one hand, dialogue with the North is highly unattractive because of the deficit of trust that originates from years of failed negotiations. On the other hand, any preemptive military strike on North Korea could escalate into another Korean War that would cause irrevocable havoc on the Korean Peninsula. Although the Trump administration insists that all options are on the table, the Korean Peninsula remains the land of bad options.
While the Trump administration has abandoned use of the term “strategic patience,” it has nonetheless found itself adopting more or less the same policies of the Obama administration. During their visit to Seoul and Tokyo, both Mattis and Tillerson reaffirmed their renewed commitment to applying more stringent sanctions on North Korea. They also indicated a renewed commitment to expand trilateral cooperation among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea. Both of these measures appear to be an extension of Obama-era policies that focused on progressively sanctioning the Kim regime and enhancing high-level dialogues on extended deterrence.
The major difference for Trump’s North Korea policy may be its approach to China. So far, Trump appears to have offered a set of incentives and disincentives to the Chinese to solve the North Korean problem. As for incentives, Trump confirmed that he has offered more favorable trade conditions with the U.S. if the Chinese did more on North Korea. With regard to disincentives, Trump indicated several times that if China does not deliver results on North Korea, the U.S. will act “on its own,” but in collaboration with other Asian countries. He appears to believe that the threat of such “unilateral” action would create more leverage against China to apply more pressure on North Korea.
Only time will tell whether these incentives and disincentives will motivate China to act more on North Korea in a way that is conducive to American interests. Thus far, however, early indications are that China is doing more, but is nonetheless reluctant to completely shut off its economic ties with North Korea. Instead, the Chinese emphasis has been on mutual restraint with a proposal for North Korea to suspend nuclear and missile tests in exchange for suspension of U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.
Continuities in U.S.-China Relations: Dialogue Mechanisms and Longstanding Principles
After the Xi-Trump summit, Tillerson announced the initiation of a U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue to be overseen by both presidents. The new dialogue will have four pillars: the diplomatic and security dialogue; the comprehensive economic dialogue; the law enforcement and cybersecurity dialogue; and the social and cultures issues dialogue. While it remains to be seen how these dialogues will function, the initiation of such new dialogues do not indicate a radical departure from the previous administration’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Instead, the newly institutionalized dialogue mechanisms suggest a continuation of mutual efforts to consult each other on a wide range of issues.
The United States and China also appear to be guided by the principles outlined in the three U.S.-China communiques. While numerous critics lambasted Tillerson for what seemed like an endorsement of China’s new type of great power relationship during his visit to China, Trump did not use the same language in the statements issued after the summit. This probably means that Tillerson’s endorsement was a personal diplomatic blunder, not an administration-wide acceptance of Beijing’s concept. In accordance with past traditions, both sides made positive remarks about the summit as well as the bilateral relationship and conveyed the general principle of enhancing cooperation while managing differences.
The U.S. policy on Taiwan could have changed drastically, especially after Trump’s phone call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen in December, but the Trump administration quickly corrected itself after coming into office. President Trump, during a phone call with Xi, made clear that he would honor “our one China policy at the request of President Xi Jinping.” Since then, he has endorsed the one China policy, but made it clear that he was not endorsing the one China principle, but “our one China policy.” The phrase “our one China policy,” inherited from the Bush administration, is a deliberately crafted phrase used to convey the fact that the U.S. has the right to interpret what “one China” entails.
Withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership
When President Trump signed a presidential memorandum to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, this marked a major discontinuity in Washington’s Asia policy. Prosperity based on the economic integration of the Asia-Pacific has been a fundamental pillar of America’s strategy in Asia for some time. The Obama administration made painstaking efforts to leverage its influence and push through the negotiations. Many participants in the TPP talks, most notably Japan, made serious economic restructuring efforts. Countries like Vietnam had to improve its human rights conditions to gain a seat in at the TPP table. Given that the Trump administration has now abandoned the TPP, countries like Japan and Vietnam are dismayed.
While the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP does not indicate an immediate handover of regional economic leadership to China, it will nevertheless undermine U.S. credibility in the region. Participants in the TPP and other regional neighbors will question Washington’s commitment to its promises in the wake of such a major policy shift. For TPP participants, the U.S. withdrawal may signal a move toward protectionist policies from the U.S. in the near future as well as greater obstacles in achieving the vision of a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP) in the long run. Furthermore, while Japan has expressed an interest in concluding the TPP with the remaining eleven members, the utility of the TPP is highly questionable without U.S. participation.
Preoccupation with Trade Deficits
Another major discontinuity in U.S. policy toward Asia under Trump appears to be the administration’s obsession with U.S. trade deficits with Asian countries. Although Trump has toned down his rhetoric on trade deficits since becoming president, he nonetheless views trade deficits as a fundamental culprit of the U.S. economic downturn. Prior to his meeting with Xi, Trump expressed concerns about the summit due to issues related to the bilateral trade deficit. Trump’s preoccupation with the bilateral trade deficit was reflected by the fact that the U.S. and China agreed on a 100 day plan that would explore ways to increase U.S. exports to China and thereby reduce the trade deficit. Still unsatisfied, Trump expressed his concern over the trade deficit with China yet again even as he thanked President Xi for visiting Mar-a-lago. In addition to Trump, Pence also appears to share the concern over U.S. trade deficits with Asian countries. For example, as he left Seoul, Pence expressed concern over America’s growing trade deficit with South Korea, which has doubled since the passage of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement.
The Trump administration’s emphasis on trade deficits will neither help develop sound economic relations between U.S. and Asian countries nor make the American economy more competitive in the global market. Excessive emphasis on trade deficits and any prospects of creating trade barriers will unnerve U.S. allies in the region and raise serious doubts about whether the U.S. still has a continued strong commitment to global economic governance and free trade. Furthermore, unlike the Trump administration’s calculations, trade deficits are not zero sum, and numerous macroeconomic factors play into shaping the size of a country’s trade deficits. Instead of doubling down on trade deficits, the Trump administration may well be advised to focus on rejuvenating America’s regional economic leadership in the wake of its withdrawal from the TPP.
Another significant discontinuity in U.S. Asia policy since the Trump administration has to do with climate change. The Xi-Trump summit made no reference to climate change at all. This was one of the most salient discontinuities, especially given that the past three summits between President Obama and Xi all reaffirmed their commitments to demonstrate responsibility and leadership on the issue of climate change.
The Trump administration has not yet made clear whether it would withdraw from the Paris Accords, but Environmental Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt has suggested that the U.S. will withdraw from the accord. Furthermore, Trump signed an executive order to ban Obama-era clean power plans that aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to meet the goals set by the Paris Agreement. Given the Trump administration’s overall negative comments and measures regarding climate change, it is now in question whether the U.S. will live up to its commitments in the Paris Accords.
Should the Trump administration officially withdraw from commitments on climate change, this would mark a major departure from bilateral cooperation on climate change and likely bring global repercussions. The Obama administration and Chinese leadership made serious headway in prioritizing climate change within the bilateral agenda. China has become much more cooperative with the U.S. on issues regarding climate change since the UN Climate Change Conference in 2009, and both sides have achieved tangible outcomes to reduce carbon emissions as well as enhance global cooperation. For instance, the U.S.-China Joint statement in 2014 laid the foundations for the Paris agreement a year later. Following the Paris agreement, global cooperation on climate change expanded, resulting in the Kigali agreement to regulate harmful chemical coolants known as HFCs and the ICAO agreement to regulate emissions from aircraft.
A U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accords would have a domino effect on global cooperation on climate change. Other countries may easily use the U.S. withdrawal as an excuse to exit from the agreement. A U.S. withdrawal may also raise serious doubts about the country’s commitment to other agreements related to climate change. Most importantly, if China abides by the Paris Accords and other agreements related to climate change while the U.S. abandons them, the U.S. may be handing over the mantle of global leadership to China, at least in the realm of climate change and potentially on other areas as well.
It is too early to tell what Trump’s Asia policy will be in the next three years. He still needs to fill critical posts related to Asia at the State department and the Defense department, as well as lay out his strategic objectives in Asia and formulate a coherent policy. Without the necessary personnel appointments and a clear strategic directive from the highest levels of the Trump administration, it is far too premature to make a serious judgement about Trump’s Asia policy.
So far, however, a careful assessment of Trump’s Asia policy shows both elements of continuity and discontinuity. The Trump administration’s strategic emphasis on the Asia-Pacific, reassurance of U.S. allies in the region, institutionalization of high-level U.S.-China dialogues, and recognition of the One China policy are positive continuities that any president should have done. On the other hand, discontinuities such as withdrawal from the TPP, the emphasis on trade deficits, and the potential withdrawal from the Paris accords will bring dire consequences not just to the U.S. standing in the Asia-Pacific, but to global economic governance as well as global efforts to fight climate change. The picture is mixed when it comes to North Korea, with continued pressure on Pyongyang, but new signals that Washington would undertake “unilateral” action if necessary. The combination of these continuities and discontinuities embody a nascent Asia policy that is all but incoherent.
Nevertheless, instead of merely criticizing the Trump administration for the lack of a coherent Asia policy, the Asia policy community should make greater efforts to constructively engage the Trump administration. Now — before the administration fully formulates its Asia policy — is the best time for the policymaking community to encourage the positive continuities observed thus far while also informing the administration of the potential consequences of negative discontinuities.